Meet Baillie Gifford Prize Finalist Hannah Fry
The Author of Hello World on Algorithms and Citizen Scores
It’s almost here: the winner of the 2018 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, which celebrates the “very best in high quality non-fiction” published in English in the past year, will be announced this Wednesday. The author of the winning book will receive £30,000, and each of the other shortlisted writers will receive £1,000.
Hannah Fry’s Hello World: How to be Human in The Age of The Machine, a mathematician’s account of the algorithms that govern our lives, is a finalist for the Baillie Gifford Prize. Lit Hub asked Fry a few questions about her writing habits, her life, and making it into the shortlist.
What does it feel like to be shortlisted?
Well. I cried for about half an hour when I found out, which I think sums up my reaction rather neatly. (Actually, I was walking through the streets of New York at the time. Sobbing openly. Not my proudest moment).
Writing this book was such an enormous challenge. I felt like I was walking on an incredibly thin tightrope trying to find the line between gripping, surprising stories and hard punching, up-to-the minute science—all the while aware how many people shudder when they hear the word “algorithm,” but knowing how much they’re already changing all our lives.
So, against that backdrop, being shortlisted really matters. It means that somehow—amid all those horrible, horrible days when I wanted to throw my laptop out the window—I managed to walk that careful line & end up writing something worth reading. You can’t ask for more than that.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’m going to cheat here & put in an excerpt from a Guardian article I wrote a few weeks ago, because it sums up the story perfectly:
Shortly after my PhD, I was working on a project with the Metropolitan police in London, looking back at what happened during the widespread riots in the city during 2011. We wanted to understand how rioters chose where to congregate, with the intention of being able to predict lawless behaviour in the future, if such an event were ever to occur again.
It was all proof of concept, and wouldn’t have been much good in a real-world riot, but nonetheless, I supported the idea: that police should be given all the tools at their disposal to bring about a swift resolution to any unrest.
Once the paper had been published, I went to Berlin to give a talk on the work. I was universally positive about it on stage. Here was this great promise of a new technique, I boasted to the audience, that the police could use to keep control of a city.
But if there is one city in the world where people truly understand what it means to live in a police state, it is Berlin. In a city where the repressive rule of the Stasi is so fresh in the memory, people of Berlin did not take kindly to my flippant optimism.
Naive as I was, It just hadn’t occurred to me that an idea used to quash lawless looting in London, might also be deployed to suppress legitimate protests. But the reaction of the audience that day stayed with me: I realized how easy it was to sit in your ivory tower and write lines of computer code without being mindful of the full potential consequences of your work.
—from that point on, I started to notice how I wasn’t alone in my naïve optimism about algorithms. So many people around me were building things without thinking about the possible implications of their work. I realised the people making algorithms often aren’t talking to the people who are using them. And the people who are using them often aren’t talking to whose lives were being changed by them.
How did you research?
Slowly and painfully! I’ve worked as an academic in roughly this area for a good few years, but I still had to read thousands of articles—hundreds of academic papers—scores of books to get up to speed on the wide breadth of topics I covered. I probably read more for this than I did for my own PhD. But, as is always the way, I learned the most when I went out and spoke to experts in each of the different fields, got their take on what was important, listened to their arguments and counter arguments and allowed their wisdom to shape my opinion.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
For me, the answer to this question will always be Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh. It’s about an amazingly simple (but deceptively tricky) maths problem that stood unsolved for four hundred years and Andrew Wiles, the man who finally solved it.
At its heart, it’s a story about the very limits of human endeavor—what can be accomplished when someone of astonishing ability totally commits everything they have to achieving their goal. I think I’ve read it about fourteen times & every time it has a profound effect on me.
Actually, it’s been a good five years since I last read it. Maybe it’s time for number 15.
Is there an algorithm that has particularly disturbing potential?
I’m not a massive fan of the algorithms online that work out our most intimate secrets—your true sexuality, whether you’ve used drugs, whether you’ve had an abortion or a miscarriage and so on. But China has a version of these algorithms that are like something out of an episode of Black Mirror. The idea is that every resident of China has a “citizen score”—a number between 350 and 950 that sums up your value to society as a person.
Everything goes into it. Your credit history, your mobile phone number, your address—the usual stuff. But all your day-to-day behaviour, too. Your social media posts, the data from your ride-hailing app, even records from your online matchmaking service.
If you buy nappies, you’re considered responsible, so your score goes up. If you play video games for ten hours a day, you’re considered idle, so your score goes down. There’s even talk of linking the system up to the facial recognition running in the city’s cctv cameras, who’ll be there to spy on you jaywalking.
And these scores matter—if you get over a certain score, you can take out a special credit card, or hire a car without a deposit, or use a VIP lane at the airport. And if you dip below a certain score, they can ban you from using certain hotels, and even limit what visas you can apply for.
From the people in China I’ve spoken to, no one seems particularly bothered by the idea—due to be rolled out as mandatory in 2020. But if you ask me, it’s a pretty dystopian view of what might lie ahead for all of us if we don’t take the power of algorithms seriously.
What are you working on next?
Too many things. Television projects, radio shows, teaching masters students, limbering up to write a new book. Oh, and I’m just about to have a baby.
It’s okay though. I can sleep when I’m dead.
What role do you think longform nonfiction has in bringing about social change?
There is nothing like longform non-fiction. It’s the only medium that allows one person to completely author an idea. Film, television, radio, talks—they’re all limited in one way or another. It’s only through tens of thousands of words that you can take someone with you on a journey—convey the ups and downs, convince them, persuade them, show them all angles.
And the result of that, as a reader, is nothing can change your mind like non-fiction can. Nothing can open your eyes or arm you with an idea in quite the same way. And that’s why—when it comes to the really important stuff—I think that non-fiction has a really fundamental role to play.
What was the greatest hurdle for you in telling this story?
Probably that everyone hates the word algorithm! I’m not sure what it is about that word that makes people want to gouge out their own eyes quite so much. It might be because no one really knows what it means (which isn’t a surprise, since it doesn’t mean very much) it might be because it evokes feelings of being stuck in boring maths lessons at school & people assume that they’re not very interesting. This bothers me because a) they’re totally fascinating! Who doesn’t want to hear how to catch serial killers or build driverless cars or spy on people? And b) however much we hate the word—somehow we need to get over our algorithmic phobia, because they’re slowly and silently changing every possible aspect of our lives.
That said, we still made a conscious decision to ensure the word doesn’t appear anywhere on the cover!
Who do you think should be on this list with you, but isn’t?
Sue Black. See below for why.
Who was the first person you told about making this list?
My husband. Closely followed by my mum. I was walking down the street on my own in NYC at the time, speaking on my handsfree kit (probably hidden by my long hair) and sobbing uncontrollably. I can’t imagine what I must have looked like to passers-by!
Do you ever turn to fiction as a respite from the research-heavy world of nonfiction? If so, who?
Yes. Occasionally. But usually I opt for really easy-to-read pop fiction. I wish I could pretend that I’m cultured, but I’m not. The last two I read were Robert Galbraith and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
What’s the best book you read this year?
All That Remains by Sue Black. Sue is one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists—meaning she is often brought in to identify the dead after murders, natural disasters, even war crimes. This book is her memoir, a story of how she greets death, both in her life and in her work. In a strange contradiction to many of the horrendous scenes that gave her a role, Sue is the most reassuring, compassionate guide in how to handle mortal remains with dignity and honour. It completely changed my perspective on death. Very powerful stuff.
What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?
Well. I know it’s a bit naughty, but I realized a while ago that—if there’s something you really want to say—you can often just work out a way to fit it into an answer. Politicians do it all the time. But it feels a lot less snakey to be side-stepping a question to fit in a cool maths story than avoiding questions about how the country is being run.
What time of day do you write (and why)?
I’m not very good at getting going. And once I finally am going, I’m not very good at stopping. I like to think of as a version of Newton’s first law: I’ll stay in rest or in motion unless acted upon by an external force. (That was an extremely geeky joke. I’m sorry).
Anyway, what this means is that I get up around 8am with really good intentions. Finally find my way to my desk around 10am. Tit around on Twitter until 2pm. Get frustrated. Go for a walk. Get back at 4pm. Start actually writing at 5pm. Get into a flow by 7pm. Keep going until 1am when I’m basically falling asleep, and then repeat.
Now, I know this isn’t the most efficient way of writing but I have tried just starting work at 5pm, andI just procrastinated until midnight and didn’t get anything done at all. So I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need at least 7 hours warm up before I’m capable of being productive.
How do you tackle writer’s block?
Badly! Sometimes I use those horrible writing apps that delete your text if you don’t write fast enough, but that’s when things get really desperate.
I try and go for a long walk with my dog every day as it helps get the ideas moving. When it works, I’ll dictate a hunk of text into my phone while walking & spend the rest of the afternoon re-writing it to form proper sentences. Often that’s just about enough to get the flow going.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Write drunk, edit sober. This is (supposedly) a Hemingway line, but a good friend of mine gave it as advice and I always try and remind myself of it while writing. It’s not to be taken too literally (unless you’re Hemingway, I guess) but the point is that when you’re filling a page, you want to feel as uninhibited as possible. You want to be completely comfortable with making mistakes, writing sentences that will never make it into the final piece and generally embrace the fact that first drafts are supposed to be rubbish. It’s in the sober light of the next day that you want to apply the critical eye.